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The History, Gastronomical Uses and Nutrition of the Lychee Fruit

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Cultivated for thousands of years in China, the lychee fruit tastes and looks like no other fruit. Its aromatic pulp is extremely nutritious and packed with antioxidant goodness.

The lychee or lichi is a symbol of romance and good luck in Chinese culture. It is thought to has been cultivated there for more than 4000 years. Legend has it that the Emperor Hsuan Tsung, seventh emperor of the T’ang dynasty, tried to impress and ultimately capture the heart of lady Yang Kuei-whose favorite fruit was lychee-by insisting that a basket of the freshest and most succulent lychees be brought from hundreds of miles away on his swiftest pony. Coincidentally or not, the name lychee is derived from the Chinese phrase ‘lee chee’, meaning, ‘the one who gifts the pleasures of life’

If the lychee is not indigenous to southern China it could have originated from the Kingdom of Annam, known today as Vietnam, according to some hypothosis. Where ever the lychee originated from, it was certainly a well kept secret; its propagation unknown outside of Southeast Asia until the 18th century, when it reached the Indian subcontinent. Before the 1940’s and the appearance of canned lychees, most people in the west had only ever seen this fruit as lychee nuts, which are sun dried lychees. Today, cultivation of the lychee tree is a worldwide enterprise with the largest producers being China, India, South Africa, Thailand, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Mexico.

The tiny lychee fruits grow in clusters on an evergreen tree that reaches as high as 70 feet. This fruit belongs to the Sapindaceae botanical family which includes rambutan and longan fruit. The lychee has a bumpy, yet easy to peel, shell which is green when unripe, turning pinkish or red when ripe. Underneath the skin is a juicy white pearl of soft aromatic fruit, the flavor of which could be described as a blend of banana, strawberry, grape and rose. The flesh covers an inedible seed.

Gastronomical Uses, Buying and Storing: Lychees are extremely perishable and do not transport well. In fact, often by the time they reach supermarkets they are already past their best. When purchasing lychees look for those with pink or light brown skins and no cracks. Those with dark brown skins are probably dried out. You can also tell the quality of a lychee by its weight. Those that feel heavy for their size are more juicy. When fresh lychees are not available, lychees canned in syrup are a good alternative. Lychees are in season from May to September.

Lychees should be wrapped in paper towel and stored in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator. They will stay fresh for at least one week, but are best eaten straight from the market. The lychee can also be frozen in its shell.

In China lychees are often served at the end of a meal to cleanse the palate. They are also added to savory dishes, especially with pork or duck, at the end of cooking. Overcooking lychees destroys their delicate flavor. Lychees are most often eaten out of hand or with desserts, like fruit salads. The Chinese also make lychee wine. The wine’s sweet, aromatic flavor team well with shellfish and Asian cuisine.

Nutritional Content: Lychee fruit is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium. This fruit is a good source of vitamin A, and the minerals calcium, copper and magnesium. In their book ‘Fruits as Medicine,’ Dai Yin-fang and Liu Cheng-jun described the health benefits of the lychee fruit, quote; ‘the nature of the flesh is warm and it can help improve the blood’. Written many years ago, Fruits as Medicine is based on Chinese historical medicinal beliefs. Lychee fruit is an intrinsic part of traditional Chinese medicine.

In recent years a large number of studies have been carried out about lychee fruit in relation to chronic diseases. A study by the United States Department of Agriculture in conjunction with the National Cancer Institute, found that lychee fruit pulp could inhibit the growth of cancer cells in experimental animals. This miraculous finding is thought due to the existence of certain antioxidants present in the fruit. These powerful antioxidants are known as flavonoids; the most abundant flavonoids or phenols in the pulp of this fruit are quercetin and kaempferol.

Quercetin is a type of phytochemical found in the color pigments of certain plants. Studies into the health benefits of quercetin have been either animal studies or cell culture. They suggest that this flavonoid is chemo-preventative and is also useful in the prevention of heart disease. Quercetin is anti-inflammatory and has antihistamine properties, making it effective for the control of asthma and allergies. Kaempferol, another phytochemical, is found in the same foods as quercetin and they work together as effective antioxidants. They help neutralize harmful free radicals, thereby helping to prevent the oxidative damage to DNA cells, which lead to occurrence of chronic diseases.

Primary image credit. Lychee wine, Image credit.

2 comments

Amera Khanam
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Posted on May 9, 2011
Ron Siojo
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Posted on Feb 10, 2011

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Peter Bilton

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